The High Court has ruled that the Pensions Ombudsman (PO) must abide by the time limits that apply to the courts. In Arjo Wiggins Limited v Henry Tomas Ralph [2009], the court held that the PO must decide disputes in accordance with established legal principles, which include not making an order when time limits prevent that order.

The complainant, Mr Ralph, had alleged that at the time he became a deferred member of the Wiggins Teape Pension Scheme, he was wrongly advised to buy out his pension benefits with an insurance company, and as a result his future pension was diminished. The complaint was upheld by the PO. However, the original transfer was made in 1986 but Mr Ralph did not complain to the PO until 2007, more than three years after becoming aware he had received erroneous advice. The PO held that, even though the claim would have been time barred under the Limitation Act 1980 if made through the courts, this did not prevent him from hearing the case.

Allowing the employer’s appeal, the judge held that although the PO has the jurisdiction to investigate time-barred complaints, he must give effect to a valid defence based on limitation. The court stated that Mr Ralph’s claim would have been defeated by a limitation defence in court and therefore the PO had no power to grant him relief.

The outcome of this case will be welcomed by trustees and employers as it should now be easier to have claims to the PO dismissed on grounds of time limits.